The Lessons of This War


ROBERT R. McCORMACK, Publisher of the Chicago Tribune

Over Station WGN, from Chicago, July 12, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 644-646.

NOTHING is more important to the American people than an understanding of military conditions and how they came about; why it was that Germany, defeated in 1918 and limited by the treaty of Versailles to an army of 100,000 men, enlisted for 12 years was able during the years 1935-39 to create an army which far outclassed all of the other armies of the world.

In the first place, her old world war weapons were destroyed. Arms manufacturers, of which there were many in Germany, had learned all of the limitations of the old guns and were ready to design improved weapons.

The Germans were forbidden to equip their army with tanks. In consequence, their maneuvers and their regulations were not limited by the old style vehicles. When the American, Christie, invented the modern tank their minds were free to appreciate it.

Turn to Civil Aviation

Forbidden military aviation, Germany turned to civil aviation at a time when civil aviation was passing military aviation in every field of performance; then turned the civilian models into war models in every way superior to anything else in the world.

When the German army was disbanded its officers corps was disbanded. Most of the men who would have been generals today and around 60 years old were discharged from the service. Most of the general staff officers, indoctrinated with the 1914-18 principles, were retired. The way was opened for younger men with new ideas to come to the front.

While the conscript armies of Europe were taking more or less unwilling men into service, teaching them the rudiments of old fashioned warfare, and discharging them, the German professional army was ceaselessly practicing and experimenting with new methods of warfare and creating an expert officers corps with which to instruct and lead the army that was called into being in 1935.

Organize Volunteer Forces

As to man power—so-called—the German political parties appealed to the military instinct of the people by organizing volunteer forces.

Months ago I told you that when I was in Germany in 1933 I saw a review of 120,000 Brown Shirts which in precision and logistics equalled anything I had ever seen, including our own army of occupation in Germany. In 1935 arms were given to these men. They had four years to learn to use them before 1939.

During the decades when the officers of the successful armies of 1918 were resting on their laurels and growing old gracefully, the young German soldiers were working feverishly in a nation which, however divided on other issues, was united as one man to undo the treaty of Versailles. The tactics of the blitzkrieg were the fruit of these 20 years of incessant labor.

First Lessons from Spain

The first lessons in modern war, however, came from Spain, when Gen. Franco transported enough troops fromMorocco by air to form the nucleus of his rebellious army. There originated the so-called "fifth columnist" activities. You will remember that the rebel radio station at Seville was used effectively to confuse the government and encourage revolt.

I remember that when I was in France at the dedication of the battle monuments in 1937, the French, very close to civil war, were unconcerned over the revival of conscription in Germany because they felt that it would take many years for the Germans to instruct officers.

This wishful thinking persisted through 1938, when it was asserted, on what evidence I do not know, that the German occupation of Austria had betrayed many weaknesses. Insofar as this may have been true, the weaknesses were discovered and remedied.

Others Aid Germans

The occupation of Czecho-Slovakia in October, 1938, furnished the second maneuver for the German army, and it is well to remember that this occupation was assisted by a Polish attack on one side of Czecho-Slovakia and a Hungarian attack on the other.

As early as 1936 we learned that Russian and French communists were assisting the Spanish government forces with equipment, officers, and noncommissioned officers, and that Italians and Germans were doing the same for the insurgents.

The war in Spain continued through the next two years, with the insurgents on the offensive making slow progress, and we learned that the rebels were successfully bombing docks and both merchant vessels and warships.

The First Blitzkrieg

In January, 1939, came the first blitzkrieg, when the Spanish insurgents, under German direction, employing both bombing planes and mechanized troops, broke the government line and drove through to Barcelona and the French border, ending the Civil war.

The lightning marches of the Germans into Austria and Czecho-Slovakia, and the battles in Spain, furnished a pattern for all military men to read. Few appear to have done so, and none of them was in authority.

At the outbreak of the battle of Poland I said over this network:

"Poland is now fighting an apparently hopeless battle with Germany along three long boundaries."

Surrounded on Three Sides

How people in responsible position could have deluded themselves that the Poles, surrounded on three sides by Germany and on the fourth by hostile Russia, could have hoped to resist the Germans, beggars the imagination; and that they should have brought the unprepared French and British people into a war that was so unpopular that the officers were afraid to train the mobilized conscripts, is equally bewildering.

In addition to their strategic advantage and to their own superiority in numbers and material, the Germans were re-enforced by Slovaks, Hungarians, and Rumanians. Theybrought the lessons of their occupation of Austria and Czecho-Slovakia, and all of the lessons learned in the Spanish war, and destroyed the Polish resistance in a few days.

One would think that this tremendous lesson would have pounded itself through the thickest head, but such was not the case. The English and French went into Norway ill equipped, ill organized, and ill led by men who had learned nothing of modern war.

Fail to Learn in Norway

Nor did they learn anything in Norway. When the fury of blitzkrieg was unleashed in Holland, no one seems to have remembered that troops had been shipped to Spain by airplane. When the radios began their confusing announcements no one had been prepared to counter this Spanish invention.

The combined use of airplanes and ground troops, first developed in Spain, then used with great success in Poland and Norway, found no emulation among the allies in the battle of Flanders; nor had any lessons been learned by the time the war was fought in Greece; and in Crete, landing fields had not been prepared at the east end of the island to aid in the defense of the west end of the island, nearest to Greece, where the existing landing field was not even protected.

It is evident that the Germans have won a considerable victory in Poland, and especially in the Baltic countries, where they were aided by the populations. It is equally evident that they have met a much more effective resistance from the Russians than was put up by any of Germany's other opponents.

If this has surprised you, it is because you have not followed events in Russia for the last 15 years.

Prepare for World Conquest

After perfecting their own revolution and massacring all of the property owners and professional men, the Soviets devoted themselves to propaganda and boring from within to bring about social revolutions everywhere in the world. When it appeared that this method was not working, Russia began to prepare for world conquest.

As early as 1924 she was acquiring tanks and airplanes, and as long ago as 1930 had a large, fully mechanized army, supported by an air corps of 2,500 squadrons.

The conquest of Europe would have been undertaken at that time, when it would have been easy, but that the communist leaders began to quarrel among themselves. In 1928 Trotsky was exiled. Then followed a number of assassinations both of communists within Russia and of White Russians in France. The latter assassinations were winked at by the French government. In 1936 and 1937 there took place the famous public trials of communist leaders, and in 1937 and 1938 the liquidation of army and navy officers.

Only the Russian Way

With whatever horror we witnessed these legal murders, we must appreciate that this was only the Russian way of getting rid of the old officers and making room for young men with up to date ideas, without leaving a disgruntled element to contend with.

The Russians were maneuvering armored columns and air troops before the German army was organized.

If the Russians are defeated in this war, it will not be for lack of training and equipment; not because they are bad, but because the Germans are better. If they are able to avoid defeat, we may hope that these two war machines may pound each other to pieces.

Whatever happens in the orient, it is my supreme concern that we be not also led recklessly, ignorantly, to the shambles. Let us, therefore, look at the state of our army.

Troops Discharged

After the armistice, our World war army was brought home. The drafted troops and National Guardsmen were immediately discharged; the regular army troops discharged as their enlistments expired.

In 1920 the national defense act was passed. I was asked to reenter active service and sit on the board called to recommend the act, but feeling that it was preparation for the last war, I declined to do so.

The regular army was then recruited up to around 140,000 strength, quite enough to develop new tactics, if it had been held together in large enough units for practice maneuvers. Unfortunately, it was divided into more than 300 separate bodies, to garrison that many army posts, and bring financial patronage to that many towns.

National Guard Reorganized

Army schools of the line, of the staff, of the war college, were conducted for officers, but all of them taught doctrines not later than 1918, and some of the instructors went so far as to insist that our army regulations prior to 1917 were still good.

That excellent and desirable organization, the National Guard, was reorganized, and the men received as much old-fashioned instructions as the time at their disposal permitted. The men and officers are above the average of the country in physique and intelligence, but time has told on the officers, many of whom are well beyond military age.

The most useful movement during the last two decades was the training of reserve officers in schools, colleges, and training camps. The majority of the officers now in the service are products of this institution, but here again, we run into the same misfortune—that the instruction was for the last war, not for the next war.

Adopt Automatic Rifle

It would not be fair to say that no advances were made in equipment, because an automatic rifle of sorts was adopted. Studies were made in field artillery so that guns could be ordered when required; but with no factories in existence to make cannon, and few, if any, men in America familiar with the metallurgy and mechanics of cannon, nothing effective was accomplished.

Such tanks as we had were obsolete and the ones now in manufacture are severely criticized by men who have seen the war in Europe. Where the Germans have a single type of gun effective against both airplanes and tanks, we have separate anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns, not effective against either.

Reports Go Unheeded

Military attaches in Russia and Germany informed the war department of the developments in those countries, but no advantage was taken of their reports. War correspondents in Spain, notably Capt. Corpening and Gen. Reilly, reported accurately the nature of that war, but their professional dispatches were more or less snowed under by propaganda intended to sway public opinion to one side or the other; so no value was received in this country from the Spanish experience.

The lessons of Poland and Norway were ignored in our army, but after the battle of Flanders the principal of armored divisions was recognized and our old-fashioned, slow infantry tanks and our cavalry tanks were combined into an armored corps.

The regular army now wished to create a field army for maneuvers, for experiment, for practice, for use if needed; but in the prevailing excitement professional advice was overridden. The entire National Guard was called out. Conscription was instituted and the regular officers and noncommissioned officers spread out like one pat of butter on a whole loaf of bread.

Lack a First Class Division

The consequence is that men who should have been studying and practicing war were doing army paper work and drilling recruits in bygone tactics, so that while we have more than a million men in uniform, we have not one first class division.

Maneuvers were held two years ago for the purpose of showing how short the army was of weapons. Maneuvers were held last year to show that the National Guard needed training and to practice the staffs. Extremely primitive maneuvers have lately been held in Tennessee to test the troops and officers that have been in training. They showed a terrifying lack of equipment and a dangerous lack of military knowledge on the part of officers of all grades. The recent occurrence in Memphis indicates that a high state of discipline has not been attained.

They need more maneuvers to learn the possibilities of the new weapons, but how to learn the possibilities of the new weapons until we get these weapons, is an insoluble problem.

Modern Weapons Needed

You cannot learn baseball without balls and bats. You cannot make big league baseball players by practicing with a soft ball. You cannot practice the offense and defense of blitzkrieg 1940 style with weapons of 1920 style.

It is common knowledge that we cannot have weapons for the army now in so-called training for at least another year. And then neither the men nor their officers will know what to do with them.

Common sense would indicate that the Guardsmen and the draftees go home when their year is up, and that weapons of modern type be furnished to the regular army so that it can learn the operation of tanks and anti-tanks, of aviation and anti-aviation, of the combination of the arms, of air reconnaissance, of dive bombers protected by fighting planes opening the attack of motorcycle, reconnaissance, followed by special troops with flame throwers and smoke screens, followed by tanks, followed by mechanized divisions.

Remember it took the German officers 20 years to devise blitzkrieg and four years to teach it to their army.

And we have not yet begun to learn!